Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
Mark’s gospel gives no detail at all about the Ascension: just a matter-of-fact statement that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” It is like a description of someone who went upstairs to sit in his favourite chair. Is there still some trace in us of that childhood notion of heaven as the spacious upper storey of the world? It seems there is, because some people were surprised a few years ago when pope John Paul II said heaven was not a place. Only material objects can be said to be in place. Christ’s glorified body after his Resurrection was not subject to material conditions: for example, he did not need to knock on the door nor use a key to enter the room where the frightened disciples had hidden themselves; instead “he came and stood among them” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19,26). At the Ascension he disappeared, or as Luke says, “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). To say he ascended into heaven means that he returned to the Father. He came from the Father and now returned to the Father. This is easiest way to say it; it avoids all spatial words. This is how Jesus himself says it in John’s gospel: “I am going to the Father” (14:12, 28; 16:10, 17, 28). We could also say that heaven is ‘God’s dimension’, as someone put it, but does this add anything? Matthew, being Jewish, did not like to use the name of God, so where the other gospel-writers more commonly say ‘Kingdom of God’ he says ‘Kingdom of heaven’. (I saw a modern book by a rabbi who consistently wrote G-d for God.) But we can just say: Jesus came from the Father and returned to the Father.
“He withdrew from them,” Luke says. What did this withdrawal mean for them, and what does it mean for us? “It is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus said (John 16:7). This seems puzzling, and he added, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you.” The Advocate is the Holy Spirit. Jesus withdraws so that the Holy Spirit may come. What sense can we make of this?
But that is next Sunday’s story. In the meantime we are to resist the temptation to think only of loss. This must have been the temptation of those first disciples too when Jesus withdrew from their sight. “Why are you people from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” (1st reading of today’s Mass). The sequel says they returned to the city. Life goes on. From now on he will be closer to them than the eye can see.